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Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Cynical shyness

Have you seen this? A researcher has come up with a phrase to describe the psychology of school shooters: cynical shyness. Socially awkward young men who want contact with other people but insulate themselves against rejection with feelings of anger, creating a 'cult of one', can turn violent.

It's a striking thought. You can see how it could turn into a vicious circle: a shy boy doesn't manage to make contact with other people, so, lacking good experiences of them, forms a misanthropic view, which then alienates people further and reinforces his cynicism. But something else I've noticed is that this 'cult of one' can actually extend itself into identification, a cult of disparate individuals who've never met.

When Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people and injured twenty-five others at Virginia Tech last April, I remember reading newspapers and blogs about it. What struck me was the difference between media and internet speculations about him. The papers, or at least the tackier ones, had a tendency to blame the movies - he saw Oldboy! (Or at least, he might have.) That must be why he killed all those people! - which is pretty stupid. But a lot of comments I saw people make online were, to my mind, equally odd.

Roughly, the comments went like this: it's obvious why he did it. He couldn't stand being laughed at by snobby girls and bullied by asshole boys, and one day he finally snapped.

Now, at the time, little was known about Seung-Hui. All that was really being reported was that one of his tutors had found him menacing, that he'd stalked a couple of female students and taken photographs in class, that he was withdrawn and unfriendly and didn't say much. That doesn't sound, on the face of it, exactly like your classic bullied kid: sexually harassing girls and taking unwelcome pictures, if anything, sounds more bullying than bullied. From what I can gather, it seems that he was bullied at high school and shot college students who weren't actually the people who'd bullied him; presumably by that time he'd retreated so far into cynical shyness that one set of bastards was much like another, as far as he was concerned. But still, it seems very likely that most of the people he shot hadn't actually done anything to hurt him.

But the notable thing was this: there were a lot of people out there who instantly identified with him, even in the absence of direct evidence that he was actually being bullied by the people he killed. He was unpopular and angry, and so people leapt in, filling in his background circumstances to resemble their own. The implication was clear: he was angry with everyone. That's like me. And it's justified.

Obviously it would be foolish to conclude from this that every shy, unhappy person is about to reach for a gun, but it's worrying when you think about the phenomenon of copycat crimes. Because schoolyard shootings are in many ways copycat. One lonely, angry kid hears about a massacre, and does, on a much grander scale, the same thing that lot of people were confining to internet comments: assumes that the killer was much like them - which might be right - and that what they did was therefore justified and admirable - which definitely isn't.

In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker describes assassins as being like Evel Kneivel-style stuntmen:

Like those of a daredevil, all of an assassin's worth and accomplishment derive from one act, one moment. This is true for most heroes, but assassins and daredevils are not people who rise courageously to meet some emergency. The assassins and the daredevils create their own emergencies [...] but what if someone got the motorcycle, painted it special, got the colorful leather pants and jacket, got the ramps, notified the press, got all set up at the canyon ... and then didn't do it? Suddenly he's not cool and special; he's pathetic. Now he's a guy whose silly name and goofy accessories add up to geek, not hero. The whole thing loses its luster if he doesn't do it.

De Becker also notes that the amount of attention assassins get from the press, dwelling on their 'meticulous' planning and showing them being chaffeured around by bodyguards like a star, can make the act seem more glamorous. Whether or not a school or college massacre is similar in psychology to the assassination of a celebrity I'm not qualified to judge, but it does seem likely that if an act of vengeful violence (even if vengeful towards people who haven't actually hurt the killer) becomes a compensation fantasy for an angry boy, then giving up that fantasy would require knocking over a huge cornerstone of his personality, and not acting on it would reinforce any self-hatred he was feeling. Steven King, notably, was asked about Seung-Hui's writings, and seems to have gone out of his way not to give any hint that Seung-Hui might have been admirable or understandable:

For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do ... Cho doesn't strike me as in the least creative, however. Dude was crazy. Dude was, in the memorable phrasing of Nikki Giovanni, ''just mean.'' Essentially there's no story here, except for a paranoid a--hole who went DEFCON-1. He may have been inspired by Columbine, but only because he was too dim to think up such a scenario on his own.

I wonder if one reason why King is taking that line is to discourage other cynically shy boys (many of whom, I bet, are reading Steven King) who might think that Seung-Hui was just like them?

There are a number of interesting points here - but I really just want to say that 'cynical shyness' is one of the most objectionable, vacuous buzz-phrases I've ever come across. (Not your invention Kit, I know.)

Really: it's crass, simplistic, brutally reductive.

Also, it suggests a mindset solely concerned with the pathology of the individual (which is undoubtedly very real), but blithely uninterested in anything that might be termed 'institutional analysis'.

As you rightly point out, a lot of people instantly identified with the killer. 'Why' is an interesting question. One thing they will all have had in common with him is some experience of being compulsorily herded through some kind of institution broadly akin to High School.

If we seriously want to understand why these terrible things happen, I think we need to be willing to look at more than just the pathological individual. We need to look at the institutions within which his pathological acts are carried out.

As any behavioural scientist will tell you, if you torture rats they tend to develop bad habits. Possibly the same applies to children.
I think you're being too hard on the researchers. It's not unreasonable, if someone is studying the phenomenon of school and college massacres, to assume that if a series of unrelated murders is very similar, the people who committed them may have shared a particular quality of temperament or cognition. If researchers think they've identified such a quality, and there's no one word for it, it's natural to invent a short description just to make it easier to refer to. Inevitably a short description won't cover all the complexities, but it's fair enough to assume that people will read the definition and understand the more complicated explanation referred to by the short phrase.

And I don't think it's unreasonable to look at crimes in terms of the psychology of criminals. I quite agree that there's a place for institutional research, but there's a place for individual psychology as well; the one doesn't cancel out the other. We need both. Because the thing is, pretty much everyone is 'compulsorily herded' through the education system, but shootings are mercifully rare. And it's not just in high-school-type institutions that massacres happen; there are workplace massacres as well, and workplaces are sufficiently different from high schools to make it worth drawing a distinction, including the fact that no given workplace is compulsory. You can quit. Obviously environments have an impact on people, but they impact upon different people differently, and it's relevant to ask what kind of person reacts violently to a given environment.

And if a group of scientists are experts in shyness, institutional analysis isn't their field. All they're doing is looking at something through the lens of their own speciality, which is what scientists do. Blaming these particular people for not doing institutional analysis is simply blaming them for being the wrong kind of scientists, which doesn't seem fair.

It's also a little uncharitable to call them 'brutal', if you look at their work. These researchers are from the Shyness Research Institute: they spend their careers trying to better understand a trait that makes many people miserable, which I'd call humanitarian. Carducci said elsewhere: 'Most young people who are shy do not experience their shyness as a source of anger and hostility. But for those shy students who are seemingly isolated and angry, we need to provide ways for them to learn how to engage with others and create a sense of community for themselves.' And if you read their website (http://homepages.ius.edu/Special/Shyness/), you'll see him saying, 'We'd rather understand shy people than change them.' Presumably they want to avert murders, but they're not trying to be stigmatise anyone; they're trying to work out who needs help and how.
To me, it comes across in the same vein as those people who don't want to tell students that they've "failed" a test. They've just "deferred success." Uh huh.
Was it just me or did your website and blog go AWOL for a couple of days? Glad I could find you again.
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